LITHUANIA: Call for worldwide defence of academic freedom

Academic freedom worldwide must be strengthened through a better defence of core university values and greater solidarity within higher education communities. This was the conclusion from a conference organised by the New York-based Scholars at Risk organisation at the European Humanities University in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius.

The two-day symposium, Defending the University: Academic freedom in Central and Eastern Europe, was held on June 20-21 and hosted by an institution that itself exemplifies the plight of academics under attack. Established 15 years ago in Minsk, Belarus, the EHU was a beacon of international intellectual endeavour until it fell foul of President Alexander Lukashenko who forced its closure four years ago, dubbing it "a breeding ground for a westernised elite".

Re-established in neighbouring Vilnius in 2006, the EHU is a Belarusian university-in-exile where its staff and 740 full-time undergraduate and postgraduate students are almost entirely Belarusian born.

Teaching in Russian, Belarusian, English and other foreign languages, the EHU is largely funded by the European Commission. But it continues to exert a wide influence through providing distance-learning programmes to a further 700 students.

Scholars at Risk, or SAR, brought more than 80 delegates together for the conference from countries that included Georgia, Russia, Ukraine, Turkey and Uzbekistan. They discussed the issues that connect violence and intimidation of university professors at one end of the scale in countries such as Zimbabwe or Iraq, with the insidious erosion of core academic values through commercialisation of universities in the US and Britain at the other.

Robert Quinn, Director of the SAR Network in America, helped co-found the organisation eight years ago. Quinn said a range of global forces in the past half-century had put academia under unprecedented pressure.

"We have witnessed a massive broadening of higher education during this period and in particular in the past 20 years, where countries have gone from having a handful of universities to dozens, bringing far more people into touch with universities and academics," said Quinn, an adjunct professor of law at Fordham Law School where he teaches international human rights.

The process had stretched the boundaries of the traditional respect afforded academia and diluted understanding of the fundamental values universities embody.

"We need to reintroduce people to the fundamental principles of these values; the academy needs to explain its role and work to people. We are at an important historic moment: the tide has swept higher education forward without waiting for its values to catch up," he said.

Putting academic freedom and values top of the agenda worldwide is a pretty tall order. Quinn sees no other way to achieve this than steadfastly building solidarity and membership in the SAR network to promote the core academic values of intellectual freedom, institutional accountability, transparency and quality.

Quinn identified three degrees of threats faced by academics around the world. The worst - what he calls "category one" threats - involve violence and intimidation often related to political, ethnic, religious or community factors. Such "unlawful violations of international standards" have been seen in Zimbabwe, Iraq and Belarus, he said.

The second category involved a broader sweep of countries such as Russia and Egypt where there was a need to "introduce or reinforce core values in places where respect for them has not always been great or has been eroded in recent decades," he said. The nature of these threats included restrictions on university curricula and higher education policies that were detrimental to free enquiry.

Less acute but more widespread threats were faced by academics in a third category that Quinn dubbed "high-end problems" - restrictions on academic freedom related to the consequences of globalisation and other larger forces such as the commercialisation of courses and campuses.

"We need to do more to ensure that higher education is coping with these pressures and remains anchored to core values," he said.

Many of the challenges in this category were less visible than such high-profile cases as the rash of visa refusals that some scholars encountered when trying to visit the US following the September 2001 attack on New York's World Trade Center.

"We see attempts by some universities not to teach subjects that are seen as a threat or to completely separate engineering and science from the humanities. That might help produce a technically advanced society, but what kind of a society would that be? How happy, free and self-reflective would it be?" Quinn said.

For many of the delegates at the Vilnius conference such questions are luxuries compared with the difficulties they have encountered in their own countries.

Anna Dolidze, who taught law in Tbilisi, Georgia, until last year, was forced to flee her home country after she and her husband faced repeated harassment for speaking out against what they considered the illicit anti-democratic actions of President Mikheil Saakashvili's government following the Western-backed "Rose Revolution" of 2004.

"We were politically active and felt it was our duty to raise our voices when personal freedoms were violated, particularly on political grounds," Dolidze said. She is now an Albert Podell Global Fellow at Risk at New York University School of Law.

Dolidze had an early encounter with the anti-democratic tendencies of the new Georgian government soon after the Rose Revolution toppled Eduard Shevarnadze from power: "I was invited to teach at a former security academy on human rights and considered it an honour to be allowed to talk to these people," she recalled.

"We had a lively discussion on my assertion that security officials should serve the interests of the state and not of the government. I was never invited back - the course was cancelled and no one would ever tell me what happened."

Things went from bad to worse: in 2005, all Georgian state university constitutions were abolished under far-reaching education reforms and temporary rectors appointed for two years. The criteria for continuing in the post after that appeared to include loyalty to Saakashvili's government.

As Dolidze continued her activities she was aware that her mobile phone calls were being monitored and her husband was arrested, beaten and, on four occasions, imprisoned. Finally, when her work monitoring the regime's abuses through attending court hearings of opposition members was stopped by a government order abolishing public hearings, she and her husband decided to leave. Both had previously worked in the US and had visas enabling them to travel and, with the help of SAR, Dolidze found the NYU fellowship.

Looking back, she feels the key mistake she and other Georgian academics and intellectuals made was not to raise their voices against government abuses sooner and louder: "We were in a serious dilemma. We were not initially able to identify who we were up against and were under the illusion for a while until it got too bad that the government had good intentions. You must speak out and, even if your institution or colleagues do not join you, there are support networks available. That is why SAR is so important," she said.

Quinn hopes that conferences such as the one in Vilnius will help build international solidarity and change the balance of SAR membership from two-thirds US based to two-thirds internationally based within the next five years.

Others also hope it can strengthen the defence of academic freedom: Annatoli Mikhailov, Rector of the EHU, said he hoped that by bringing greater attention and focus to the issue, universities such as his might one day win their passage home.

"We very much hope that one day we shall be able to return to Minsk and hope that the growth of the university and awareness of the challenges to academic freedom will assist that."